Recently, I read a news story that referred to Osama Bin Laden as the “former leader of al-Qaeda.” Former? Ha! Perhaps so in the same way that Hitler is a former Nazi, or Ted Bundy a former serial murderer, if we may refer to them at all in the present tense. But somehow in such cases it seems that “former” is not quite le mot juste. Why are people afraid to use the word dead regarding these guys?
Bin Laden is indisputably no longer in a position to head up al-Qaeda as long as he remains in a deceased state. Having been given an honorable funeral (likely to prevent ticking off any more terrorists), he has presumably gone wherever good terrorists go when they die, and has been busy fooling around with the army of virgins promised to him by his spiritual advisers, who I’m sure checked their holy books at least twice to be sure they could rightly offer that reward. This strikes me as a terrible waste of virgins. I’ll bet he’s real sorry now about all the mean things he did, too. Former my foot.
Wouldn’t it be funny if that teaching turned out to be true, but when he got there the virgins all turned out to be thirteen-year-old boys? A little detail his holy men forgot to mention. Maybe the God of terrorists has a sense of humor; his worshipers certainly don’t.
What can I say? Religion often makes people stupid. But that’s a topic for another post someday, and I’ve digressed.
Some designations remain for life, even though the designee goes on to other things; and some do not.
In 2011, it would be inappropriate to call the Boston Celtics the National Basketball Association champions, even though they have won that championship seventeen times. At this writing, the Dallas Mavericks hold that title. That a team has to compete for it and win it in successive years and with different team members is an indication that the honor, while memorable for a lifetime, is not permanently current. There is only one NBA championship team at any given time. Therefore, the Boston Celtics are presently former NBA champs. They have been such seventeen times, and could very well be champs again many more times in the future.
A use I’ve often heard for “former” is in reference to various Beatles, who as a band have earned a unique station in the world of popular music. Paul McCartney is often called a former Beatle, and true enough, I’ve never heard Paul himself dispute the term. However, even though John, Paul, George, and Ringo no longer work together and never will, the ghost of the band’s business is still going strong. New Beatles-branded product is periodically released to the world and continues to sell very well. In this, no one has a greater hand of overseership than Paul McCartney himself. No item is labeled as being from the Beatles unless Paul says it can be, undoubtedly with Ringo’s agreement.
If a Beatle still exists it would be Paul, and if Paul is a Beatle, then the same reasoning would include Ringo, but the case for Paul is much stronger. In both my mind and my heart, Paul and Ringo are Beatles, and will never be former Beatles as long as they live. John and George are not former Beatles. Sadly, they’re merely dead Beatles, but by the terms I’ve just described remained actual Beatles as long as they lived, regardless of the band’s inactivity.
In the United States, we use “former” in cases where someone definitely changes course and does not return to it. We write of former presidents because these men (and someday women) step down and another person takes their place, though I’ll admit that their status is muddied somewhat in that ex-presidents by accepted convention continue to brandish the honorific Mr. President for the rest of their lives. In comparison, we do not do the same for former US senators. When their terms of office expire and they are replaced, as long as they are living, they are former senators. When Harry S. Truman was elected vice president, he became a former senator.
Therefore, I would urge authors and copyeditors alike to agree to save “former” for cases where someone still living definitely changes course and completely relinquishes all evidence of still holding claim to the title formerly bestowed on him.
- Osama bin Laden seriously considered changing al-Qaeda’s name (shortformblog.tumblr.com)
- Osama Wanted to Rebrand Al-Qaeda (newser.com)